June 18, 2017, Good News! The Father Aches for You – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000029
Friday evening is movie night at our house, and this week we watched a new film called “Moonlight”. It was really good, but it was incredibly sad and painful to watch pretty much throughout the whole movie. It starts out when the main character, Chiron, was a little boy. His mother was a struggling single mother who wasn’t able to be there for him most of the time. And her own life becomes increasingly desperate as the story goes on. But from the beginning this little boy is alone most of the time, even at night.
The story is set in Miami, in a pretty rough neighborhood, and the school Chiron attends is a dangerous place for a little boy who’s quiet and friendless and a little different from the other kids. That vicious pack mentality sets in, and the school bullies make his life miserable. The actor who plays Chiron as a little boy has such a lost, frightened expression, and even knowing it was just a movie you couldn’t look at that sad little face without feeling that gut-wrenching sensation of sorrow and pity that we feel when we truly have compassion for a fellow-creature.
It’s the feeling people felt universally I think, back in August, when the news showed the picture of that little boy in Aleppo – his name is Omran – after a bombing, sitting alone and afraid and sad in the ambulance, covered in dust, his face all bloody. There have been so many real-life images we have seen over this past year or more, of refugees and the victims of war and other senseless violence, that give us that terrible aching feeling, beyond thought or reasoning, a visceral reaction to the suffering of the innocent. We can’t help but care. We hurt inside to see them.
There is a word for that gut feeling in the passage we just now read from Matthew’s gospel. Our English translation says that Jesus “had compassion” on the crowds of people that came to him. Or some translations use the word “pity” – but the Greek word that Matthew used comes from the Greek word for “bowels” or “guts” which in Greek thought was the innermost seat of our human emotions. We more traditionally think of the location of our feelings being in the heart, but even in English we have expressions that go deeper. We use the term “gut-wrenching” to express our most intense feelings, or we say, “I knew in my gut there was something wrong” when we have that deep sense that goes beyond thought or reason.
And that, that “gut feeling” kind of emotion, Matthew tells us, expresses the depth of feeling that Jesus had when he looked out over the crowd of men and women and children. He saw weariness and fear and worry and hopelessness in their faces. They looked like lost sheep, he said, sheep who have no shepherd to guide or protect them, prey expecting any moment to feel the teeth of the predator; no one to turn to, nowhere to take refuge, nothing to depend on.
Jesus looked out over the multitudes of people, lost and afraid and sad, and Jesus had the gut-wrenching sense of sorrow and pity for them that we feel ourselves sometimes in the face of innocent suffering, or sometimes just in the intensity of our love and tenderness. Have you ever watched over your sleeping baby and just loved them so much it was physically painful, this ache of pure love that you have deep inside. That is the feeling Matthew’s word is talking about.
And I think one of the first and most important and most amazing things we should realize when we see that aching love of Jesus is that what we are seeing is a real, physical, flesh-and-blood representation of the love of God the Father. You might remember that in the account of Jesus’ last supper with his apostles, Philip asked Jesus, “Please, just show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” And Jesus just shook his head and said, “Philip, have you been with me all this time without getting it? When you see me, you see the Father. If you know me, you know the Father. And you know me. It’s as simple as that.”
The whole point of the Incarnation, God himself taking on human flesh, in other words, is to make the invisible God visible to our human eyes – and not just visible, but touchable and audible and intimately knowable by his beloved children. That’s what John is so excited about in this first letter to the churches when he says, “That which was from the beginning” that is, the infinite, eternal, Creator God “we heard him with our own ears, and we saw him with our own eyes, and we touched him with our hands!” And that’s not just bit of theological wordplay. What it means is that God the Father, not just the God-man Jesus, but the infinite God who Created the Universe, he looks out over his lost, frightened children, and in his great love for us all he aches with compassion. He pities us in his very guts. Our lostness is painful to him.
The prophet Hosea spoke these words from God to the rebellious children of Israel “How can I give you up? How can I hand you over? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger. I will not destroy you, for I am God and not a man.” Compassion and mercy, it turns out, even the deepest and most visceral kind of pity – these are Divine emotions. To the extent that we human beings are merciful and compassionate at all, it is because we get it from our Dad.
And all that means absolutely everything for us, when we hear the commission Jesus gives to his disciples to bring the good news into the world – first to the Twelve, Peter and James and John and company, and then to seventy-two more disciples that he sent out in pairs and finally, to every one of us, in the Great Commission he gave us just before he ascended to the Father, when he said, “Go and make disciples of all nations – and never forget, I am with you always and forever, no exceptions.”
It means everything because when we think about this thing we call “evangelism” it is 100% totally and absolutely essential that we understand the heart – or the guts, we might say – of the one who is sending us out into the world. The church sometimes goes out like an army of vigilantes bent on pounding God’s righteousness into the heads and hearts of all the “lost souls” they can find. It sometimes seems like Christian evangelists take the “two-edged sword” of the Word of God and used it as a weapon of vengeance or destruction. Other times less violent, but equally enthusiastic Christians seem to take the Great Commission of Jesus as a heavenly recruitment campaign: “The Almighty God is looking for a few good men” or “Jesus wants YOU – sign up today!” (preferably for OUR church)
But evangelism – which literally means the bringing of good news – is only evangelism, is only good news, if we begin from the aching love, the gut-wrenching longing, of the Father for his children. That’s what makes it good news. We can hear the loving purpose of the Father in the proclamation Jesus made, when he cried out, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed – proclaiming the year of his favor.”
The message of the gospel is not “straighten up and fly right” – thank goodness for that – or “come over to the winning side”. The message of the gospel is this: as totally and inexcusably screwed up as we all were and are, God loves us more than his own life. God loves us so much it hurts. That’s the bottom line. That’s the message we have for the world.
In the movie, “Moonlight”, there is a character named Sean who befriends Chiron in all his helplessness and lostness and scaredness. It turns out this man is a drug dealer with his own problems, but despite that – or maybe, actually, because of that – his compassion and kindness for a lonely little boy is such a good picture of what evangelism is meant to be: because we are all “wounded healers” as Henri Nouwen says. When Chiron is too frightened to talk, Sean brings him to a diner and just lets him eat. He tries to make sure he’s safe. He opens his home to him. He does “Dad” things with him, like teaching him to swim. Maybe most important, he listens to Chiron, remembering all the time when he, too, was little and alone and friendless. When Chiron confesses to him, “I hate my Mama”, Sean just nods his head. “Yeah, I hated my Mama too. I miss her like hell now, though.”
Our commission as evangelists is not to recruit people, or to pass judgment on them, or to “fix” or change them somehow. The job of an evangelist – and every one of us is called to be an evangelist in our own time and place – the job of an evangelist is to reveal the passionate love of the Father to the people we meet in whatever way we can – cautiously, tenderly, respectfully, with friendship and kindness – because there is no greater good we can offer a person than to help them know that the God of the Universe knows and cares for them, personally; that he loves them so much it hurts.
As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person– though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” So great is his love for us all. We don’t need a fancy message or great wisdom to proclaim the good news. All we need to do is to share with the people around us the great love with which we ourselves have been loved. Freely we have received the love of the Father when we were harrassed and helpless; now let us go forth and freely share that love with our fellow lost sheep. Because that’s what evangelism is.